Alum Rock schools face lingering encampments amid reopening
A youth walking past Clyde L. Fischer Middle School in East San Jose where an RV sits in front of the school's track field. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Alum Rock Union Elementary School District trustees set a tentative reopening date of Monday for its campuses across East San Jose. However, there remains no concrete solution for addressing the homeless encampments growing along some of the district’s schools.

“With less eyes from the community and schools having been shut down, all of a sudden it became a lot easier for people to encamp near the schools,” said Andres Quintero, vice president of the district’s board of trustees.

Parents with children enrolled in Alum Rock schools have urged the board to take action on the encampments. Caught between a lack of resources and authority, trustees said they’ve advocated for city officials to step in and take hold of the situation.

San Jose Councilmember Maya Esparza emphasized that children have to pass encampments when walking to and from school. Councilmembers proposed schools be prioritized for future abatements at a March 22 meeting.

“If there is a large encampment across from an elementary school and there’s gunfire, open drug use, open prostitution, in addition to infestations, to me that represents a public safety hazard,” Esparza said.

With a recent vote to continue pre-pandemic abatements, councilmembers directed City Manager Dave Sykes to draft a plan by May 1 on which areas must be void of encampments.

Housing department spokesman Jeff Scott said the city is paying extra attention to keeping rights-of-way near schools cleared, and creating a plan for maintaining buffer zones around schools.

Board President Corina Herrera-Loera said the rise of homeless encampments near schools is not unique to Alum Rock. She said it’s a citywide problem exacerbated by the pandemic and lack of affordable housing.

“I want to highlight it’s not all encampments causing issues. We need to ask, how do we create equity in a system where we can keep our families with shelter?” she said.

In addition to Alum Rock trustees, members of nearby neighborhood associations said they’ve reached out to city officials for solutions.

“We have 12 schools at Mayfair, that’s why I worry so much about the children going back and forth from schools,” Mayfair Neighborhood Association President Guadalupe Gonzales told San José Spotlight. “I have my grandkids attending those schools and I want them to be safe. I don’t want them to encounter any troubles.”

Gonzales shared a story in Spanish of a recent encounter she had with a group of men living under the bridge leading to Lee Mathson Middle School. Catcalling ensued as she walked across the bridge toward the Mayfair Community Center. Gonzales said when one of the men exposed himself during the encounter, she started running, realizing no one else was around to intervene.

“After that, I got to thinking, what if a little girl was on that bridge walking home from school? They won’t know how to react,” Gonzales said.

Quintero said Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, across the street from Mathson, reported experiencing the same issues.

Cynthia Shaw, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of San Jose, said the church is in support of those who are unhoused, but said people under the influence pose a safety threat to the 600 youths coming into religious education programs.

“Just like the school district, we’re all trying to figure out the best situation and it’s very delicate,” Shaw said.

At least four separate homeless encampments sit along the sidewalk just outside William L. Sheppard Middle School in East San Jose. Parents said the sidewalk is a common route for school children who walk to and from school. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Delia Oseguera, a member of the Tropicana Lanai Neighborhood Association, said she worked with Esparza’s office to clear encampments from Hubbard Media Arts Academy.

“(The city) sent people from homeless services and if they didn’t want help then they were told they needed to move or be cited,” she said. “During this school year (my daughter and I) have been walking to Hubbard to get lunch, and I am aware of my surroundings.”

Oseguera and other parents commended the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office for helping clear encampments—though spokesperson Sean Webby told San José Spotlight they play no role in abating encampments.

“These are not criminal matters. Our job is to connect homeless folks with services if we can,” Webby said. “It’s certainly not to dismantle homeless encampments. That’s not our mission or our job.”

Brenda Zendejas, a former Alum Rock trustee candidate who ran in 2020, said while she understands parents have the safety of their children as a top priority, abatements alone are no solution. She said long-term housing and services must be provided to stop encampments from continuously moving back into recently-abated areas.

“We need to have a roundtable and sit down with unhoused advocates, the nonprofit developers and make sure that they also think of this community,” Zendejas said. “Children should know that we shouldn’t discriminate against anyone for their situation and how they live.”

Herrera-Loera said the unhoused community should not be vilified just because some pose a danger to school children.

“I would like to hear a program where it’s not just abatement, quote unquote, but where they’re provided with resources, transitional housing or temporary shelter,” she said. “The encampments are not the issue, the issue is the systems in place and the situation that has caused our community members to become unhoused.”

Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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